Getting to Know Us: Interview With Anthony Petrosky

Posted on March 4th, 2014 by Pam Goldman

Anthony Petrosky is Co-Director of the Institute for Learning and Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He talks about his work at IFL and the CCSS, but also about his poetry.

Anthony Petrosky

I know you have dived deeply into the CCSS. You led the team that developed the prototype assessments for PARCC and you've worked with a number of groups, including RAND, studying them. What do you see as most encouraging about these standards?

The CCSS emphasize the kinds of intellectual skills that have been the mainstays of privileged education and, by the way, the kind of education that the Institute for Learning has promoted for all students for almost 20 years. These standards position students to read complex texts. No more dummied down readings. They ask students to explain their understandings of them in the kinds of talk and writing that we’d expect of articulate youngsters. And they expect students to use evidence from their readings in their talk and writings as they weave their explanations and arguments into language that grows more sophisticated as they move through the grades. If you want to see what this looks like in practice, visit classes—often in good private schools—where students have had steady diets of these kinds of core intellectual skills. Listen to the students—not the teachers. Students are the ones who do the hard work. And read their writings—study chunks of it—not just individual moments to see what CCSS intellectual skills look like in practice.

Sounds impressive. So, will the CCSS alone get American k-12 education where it needs to be?

I need to say the obvious. The CCSS are standards, markers in a big universe of teaching and learning. To me, they define essential spaces in which teaching and learning occur. But they need to be built into something bigger than them. That something bigger is disciplinary curriculum.

The ELA/literacy curriculum, for instance, is bigger than the standards. It should encompass the standards, but it should ask more of teachers and students than the standards. Good practice in this discipline asks students to write in the genres in which they are reading. When they read essays of various sorts, then they use those essays as models to write their own. The same is so with poetry, drama, short stories, speeches, epistles, letters, and so on. There's much to be learned in writing from this practice in and across genres. Although the writing standards don’t ask this type of work from students, it must be a substantial presence in any ELA/literacy curriculum.

The writing standards have a focus on explanation, argument, and a specific type of narrative. To me as a writing teacher and a writer, the writing standards are too narrow. I understand what could be a reason for this. It could be that students have had too little practice with explanation and argument in their schooling, so the standards make these types of writing, rather than types of genres, prominent.

But even within this sort of thinking, it's a fool's errand to try to separate types of writing from each other—explanation and argument in this case. I can show you thousands of examples of good writing in which explanation is argument and argument is explanation. And rooms full of smart people could spend all day arguing over which sentences are explanation and which are argument. People have tried to make these distinctions in writing for decades, and these efforts, often represented in textbooks, have produced stilted curriculum and formulaic writing.

My concern with the writing standards, then, has to do with the ways in which they invite us to obsess over distinctions that lead us down a rabbit hole into confusion as we try to define and make artificial distinctions between explanatory and argumentative writing. This obsession plays out in instruction in formulaic assessment type tasks that force the distinctions.

The issue embedded in this example from writing has to do with the purposes of the standards. To me, they are occasions to think about what constitutes good curriculum and professional development in the disciplines. We shouldn't construct those only from the standards. We should be using what we know from best practices in the disciplines as the frameworks for teaching the kinds of reasoning promoted by the standards.

That said, you certainly learned a lot about the standards by developing prototype assessments for PARCC. How does what you learned influence IFL's work today?

When we created the PARCC prototypes, we learned that we didn't understand the standards well until we had to use them to select texts and create tasks. Sure, we read them; we studied them; we even hauled out tasks and lessons we had that we thought aligned with them. But really understanding the standards takes slow, steady work with them to create tasks, lessons, and units. We did every task ourselves, and we studied the field tests results to see how students understood our tasks. Often they didn’t get what we thought they would, so we revised and revised.

Another thing we learned is the difficulty of finding challenging informational texts. Resources for schools are saturated with weak informational readings. Finding sets of useable informational readings challenged us. They are out there, but we spent a lot of time in libraries to find them. On the other hand, there are lots of great literature selections available at all grades. It’s clear that providing good literature has been our focus for decades. This hasn’t been so for informational texts.

Busy teachers can never devote the amount of time to understanding the standards that we did. As we develop professional development and units, we keep that in mind and build in resources that allow teachers to benefit from our work.

What initiatives are you working on at the Institute?

IFL has a number of things in the works to take us in new directions. We'll soon be adding to our teacher-facing materials by rolling out student-facing materials in ELA/literacy, mathematics, and science. We’ll soon have materials for students to use online and on paper. And we'll continue to have educative teacher manuals that offer teachers substantial help with our student materials.

We’ll roll out hybrid professional development on an elegant and accessible platform that allows us to embed support for teachers and students into online units, lesson sets, and assessments. Students will be able to see brief video clips of others talking through their explanations of problem solutions or watch others explaining the reasoning in their writing or see models and contrasting examples. These are just a few of the kinds of support that we’ll be able to embed in our online units, lesson sets, and assessments.

As an organization, we're rethinking the way we work just as districts and schools are changing the way they work. Hierarchies have given way to networks. There's also a flood of new start-up vendors doing curriculum writing and professional development for the CCSS. So we’re working to take advantage of our research base in a prominent university research and development center as we transform our development for an online and hybrid presence in this network driven ecosystem.

As a result, we're more flexible and agile that we’ve ever been, and we're staying close to our disciplinary literacy heritage.

Can you say a few words about the reader that you're developing for use in high schools?

Vivian Mihalakis, Stephanie McConachie, David Bartholomae, and I have a contract with Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press for a high school textbook, Way of Reading: An Anthology for High School Writers, designed along the lines of our college reader, Ways of Reading—also published by Bedford. The purpose of the reader is to provide the kinds of quality and engaging informational texts that students and teachers need for their everyday classroom use. It's a collection of mostly nonfiction essays from different magazines and books that we chose for their interest and the subjects the authors write about. The authors in the book range from Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. Dubois to Jean Marie Laskas and Atul Gawande. We have small sets of poems by A. R. Ammons, Emily Dickinson, Cornelius Eady, Robert Frost, Kay Ryan, and Walt Whitman as well as stories by Joyce Carol Oates and Chekhov, and drama by Chay Yew that we're using as literary examples, so that people can see our thinking on how to integrate literature with informational studies. We have sets of questions and talking and writing assignments for each selection in the book as well as models for how to design mini units that make use of multiple texts. Much of the work for students asks them to read, talk, and write across multiple texts. The selections, like those in Ways of Reading, our college text, are compelling reads on informative and curious subjects.

What are you reading now?

My reading has always been all over the place. I always have a number of new things going and a set of favorites that I reread almost every year. I just finished Lee Gutkind's You Can't Make This Stuff Up: The complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough is up next in the cue.

Right now I'm also reading Nemesis by Jo Nesbo—a detective story. I love detective stories. And my favorite book of essays right now is My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. Koestenbaum is a poet, art critic, essayist who writes well about the poets, artists, and film stars I adore. He's writes smart and often funny stuff.

Anthony Petrosky

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach also is on deck, and I haven't mentioned the essays for the high school book. We read those essays over and over, at least five to six times each, annotating them along the way with notes and questions and arrows and lines and circles and boxes. After we've done that reading, it takes days to draft the questions and assignments for a single selection. But we all have other jobs, so those days tend to be weekends and nights.

I hear you're a poet. Tell us about your love for reading and writing poetry.

I'm carrying around two books of Kay Ryan's poems that I've read now over and over for at least three years, reading from them here and there—Selected and New Poems and Say Uncle. I always have a copy of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems close by to read when the mood strikes me as well as James Schuylers's Selected Poems that I've been reading for at least a couple of decades. I've been reading these books for years because I love the poems in them. I continue to learn from them. I once created a project for myself to write a long poem like Schuyler's "The Crystal Lithium" and "The Morning of the Poem." It's in my third book, Crazy Love. It's called "We Are Here," my homage, my love poem for Schuyler.